- Susan Gallagher
It starts slowly, with a few sporadic calls about orphaned wildlife, then reaches fever pitch around June. The phone may ring non-stop right through summer, with things finally tapering down by September.
Most of the orphans presented to any wildlife rehabilitation center will be common species. Here in eastern Pennsylvania that means lots of squirrels, robins, jays and mallard ducklings. A few admissions might generate a little more excitement: a spiny-from-birth porcupette maybe, or a lone little weasel like this guy.
Regardless of what baby season has in store in any given year, the beginning is always the same. Nearly every one of the early season admissions will be one species and one species only: the Eastern Cottontail.
Ahhhh! Baby bunnies! They’re the bane of my existence. Why? Because I have no luck with them. Some of my fellow rehabilitators can raise them quite successfully, but I’ve been known to do in entire litters just by looking at them. Fine one minute--BAM!—dead the next.
Luckily I’ve a very capable volunteer, a baby bunny foster mom named Diana. She’s an honest to goodness Bunny Whisperer if ever there was one.
Not only does Diana save me a TREMENDOUS amount of work, she also has a near 100% success rate in raising and releasing orphaned rabbits that are otherwise healthy on admission. Now, I don’t believe this to be true for any other species of wildlife, but when it comes to rabbits, some people (like Diana) just have The Touch and others (like me) decidedly do not.
The problem with rabbits is that life in the wild is tough on them. They are notoriously adept at reproduction for one simple reason: everything eats them. Pick a predator, any predator, and pass the hasenpfeffer, please.
These animals are on constant high alert. Rescued orphans must be terrified to find themselves in a cardboard box among noisy, giant humans who keep touching them and trying to feed them milk replacer that’s nothing at all like what mom used to make.
So in an effort to make life easier on the bunnies (and the Bunny Whisperers, who spend countless hours in caring for their delicate little charges), I do what I can to minimize the number of these animals admitted for care. To that end I offer, for general edification, the Four Rules of Rabbit Reproduction, which everyone should know:
Rule #1 – Rabbit moms sometimes show remarkably poor judgment in choosing nest sites. If you find a neat little cup o’ babies on the fifty yard line of the local high school football field, rest assured that’s where mom wants them to be. You can’t move them under the bleachers and expect her to find them again. Sorry if that’s an inconvenience but that’s how it works.
Rule #2 – Rabbit moms generally nurse their young only at night. Finding a nest without an adult in attendance is normal. If you’re worried mom’s not returning, place a few strands of yarn over the nest, and check them the next morning. Most likely the yarn will have been moved, indicating mom did indeed return during the night just like I said she would.
Rule #3 – Baby rabbits grow up fast. Remember, everything eats them, so they must reproduce quickly. They can only do that if young are weaned and independent at an early age. By the time they’re softball-sized, they’re big enough to be on their own. Do not send them into junior-bunny panic mode by putting them in a cage next to the television where the dog can sniff them. They won’t like it.
Rule #4 – Rehabilitators are only permitted to accept wildlife in need of care. We cannot (and will not) take in baby bunnies because…
a) There are cats in the neighborhood.
There are cats everywhere, and that’s not about to change any time soon.
b) Your dogs are going to dig them up.
Put a milk crate over the nest during the day while your dog is out then remove it before you bring Fido in for the night. Won’t this keep mom from returning? No. See Rule #2.
c) Your kids are going to keep bothering them.
Tell your kids to stop. Let this be the first in a long list of lessons about human impacts on wildlife.
d) Your dogs have already dug them up and/or your kids have already bothered them.
Put them back in the nest. Minor disturbances are not likely to keep mom away.
If you’ve run the babies over with a lawn-mower, the neighborhood cat has been playing with them, or you’re reading this because you’ve already had a litter in a cardboard box for two days, then by all means, call your nearest rehabilitator.
And if you’re so inclined, do something to make life a little easier for bunnies and other wildlife. Introduce a Cats Indoors! campaign to your neighborhood, offer cover by planting native grasses or shrubs, and of course, limit or eliminate your use of pesticides.
If you do end up presenting orphans to a wildlife rehabilitator, consider making a donation if you’re able. Milk replacers, housing and veterinary care cost money, and Bunny Whispering is generally a non-paid position.